“In simplest terms, fire exists because the Earth holds life. Life pumped the atmosphere with oxygen. Life lathered the land with hydrocarbons. The chemistry of combustion is among life’s most elemental reactions, for it simply takes apart what photosynthesis puts together.”
— Stephen J. Pyne, Tending Fire
By Nick Houtman
Oregon’s most destructive wildfire was born like many others. In August 2015, the eastern half of the state was in a drought emergency. More than a dozen fires were burning across Oregon and Washington. On August 12, a flurry of early morning lightning strikes set parched grass and trees ablaze in a dozen places in the Malheur National Forest.
Crews aggressively attacked them all, including two fires in the Blue Mountains south of John Day — at Mason Springs just off Hwy. 395 and Berry Creek in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Neither posed an immediate threat to homes and other structures. On relatively flat ground, Mason Springs was fully contained within a day.
Located on steep terrain, Berry Creek would prove more difficult. Firefighters had to parachute in or rappel to nearby areas and then hike several miles. As ground crews worked their way around the fire perimeter, planes and helicopters dropped water and doused areas ahead of the flames with loads of bright red retardant. Although the fire had been surrounded, snags and hot spots were still burning as night approached. Near dark, crews retreated from the dangerous rocky terrain for their own safety, per U.S. Forest Service policy.
According to a Malheur National Forest report, both fires were “full suppression efforts,” but that aggressive approach — what the Forest Service calls an Initial Attack — would prove futile. On the afternoon of August 13, hot dry winds fanned smoldering debris and sent burning embers as far as a quarter mile past the fire lines. Both fires roared to life.
Fed by an abundance of bone-dry fuel, low humidity and strong winds, Mason Springs and Berry Creek grew relentlessly toward homes and ranches along Canyon Creek. When they joined forces, they became known as the Canyon Creek Complex Fire, a monster bingeing on accumulated decades of growing trees, shrubs and grasses. Full containment wasn’t achieved until November, after 43 homes and nearly 100 barns and other outbuildings had been destroyed. About 110,500 acres, an area larger than the city of Portland, were scorched to varying degrees. The fire-fighting cost reached $31 million.
Over the past decade, such expenses have been mounting. The Forest Service alone spent $2 billion fighting fires in 2015, more than double what it had spent only five years earlier. Solutions will require an all-hands-on-deck shift in land management. So to promote greater resilience and to address questions about fire behavior and the needs of rural communities, the Oregon State College of Forestry has created the Western Fire and Drought Management Center. The goal is to coordinate research across academic disciplines from forestry and engineering to rangeland science. The center will also provide science-based information to communities, businesses and government agencies.
“We’re coordinating efforts across the university and partner organizations,” says Anthony Davis, associate dean for research in the college. “At the end of the day, we need to manage and predict wildfires and their impacts on ecosystems and communities.”
The condition of western forests poses a challenge, adds John Bailey, OSU forestry professor and a leader in the new center. “Forest fire exclusion and suppression have created forest types that have never existed before. Some areas are three or four times denser, and others are 10 times; most everywhere is higher than they’ve ever been. All logic and observations suggest that it’s contrary to the fire resistance and resilience that are compatible with our needs as a society.”
Investigations into Fire
Almost 2,300 wildfires burned across Oregon in 2015, the most in the state’s modern history. According to the Forest Service, all but 119 were rapidly contained, an achievement that the agency describes as “an almost 97 percent Initial Attack success rate.”
But therein lies a problem. Most of Oregon east of the Cascades and south of Eugene, indeed much of the western United States, is what forest researchers conservatively call “fire prone.”
James Johnston, an Oregon State University forest researcher, recently reconstructed fire histories at 13 sites on the Malheur National Forest, including one site near Canyon Creek. By analyzing old fire scars and coring trees at each site, he was able to look back more than a century to a time before modern settlement, grazing practices and fire suppression policies took root.
Reporting in two journals, Ecosphere and Fire Ecology, he and his colleagues found that from the ponderosa pine groves of the relatively dry lowlands to the mixed-conifer stands of higher elevations, fire historically visited every 10 to 28 years. “Fire, like herbivory, was a ubiquitous and relatively uniform influence,” they wrote.
However, modern fire suppression policies have stretched out the years between fires, allowing fuel to build up. “Fire was very frequent for hundreds of years and then was abruptly excluded from the landscape at the end of the 19th century,” says Johnston. “Surface fuel accumulation since then has a lot to do with the extreme fire behavior that destroyed those 43 homes.”
Such conditions are hardly unique to Eastern Oregon. In the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Klamath County, researchers have documented a 600-percent increase in the number of trees per acre over the last century.
Scientists are quick to point out that forest density is not the only ingredient in the recipe for fire. Soil and vegetation moisture, prevailing winds, humidity and topography also play a role. Nevertheless, growing fuel loads have contributed to a spate of large fires across the state in recent years — the Biscuit in 2002, the B&B Complex in 2003, the Douglas Complex and Whiskey Complex in 2013.
Larger, more severe fires are not limited to the forests. In 2012, the Long Draw Fire burned more than 558,000 acres of grass and sagebrush south of Burns. That same year, the Miller Homestead Fire spread across another 160,000 acres. Area ranchers took a hit with more than 50 cattle killed (according to conservative estimates), fences and buildings lost and valuable forage scorched. The fires also consumed large blocks of sage-grouse habitat, a focus of restoration efforts.
In 2003, a chance to tour the still-smoldering impacts of the B&B Complex fire on Santiam Pass generated an aha! moment for Christine Olsen, who was just starting her Ph.D. at OSU. “The Forest Service invited students and faculty to go out into the burned area to talk about what we’re going to do about it,” she says.
Researchers were already measuring public opinion about fire and pre-fire mitigation work, but driving through the blackened land on the way back to Corvallis, Olsen wondered what people thought about the burned forest she was driving through.
“There’s a lot that could be done to rehabilitate these massive landscapes. How does the public view that? People might wonder if there is going to be any salvage logging at all, and they may not be sure of what can really happen.
“What I’ve learned in my interviews with land managers is that it’s a question of balance,” Olsen adds. “Whatever they do, it’s coming directly out of the money they would have had to reduce fire risk somewhere else.”
In her subsequent surveys of people in communities near the B&B and the Biscuit fires, the social scientist in the College of Forestry found that majorities of respondents are generally accepting of infrequent salvage logging in carefully selected areas. In a survey of four communities across the country, she found that people tend to be more tolerant of smoke that occurs from natural causes than from fires that are set for management purposes. Attitudes about smoke tend to reflect worries about personal health.
Olsen has also found that access to information plays an important role in public acceptance of forest management activities. “Some people want more information but don’t know where to find it,” she says. “There seems to be a disconnect between the information that scientists and the agencies are putting out there and what the public is able to find.”
The Physics of Embers
In a wind tunnel on OSU’s Corvallis campus, engineering professor David Blunck and his students set sticks on fire and measure the size and velocity of the embers that fly off the burning wood. They fasten dowels of known species — white oak, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, white fir — into a fireproof container, apply a propane flame and turn on a fan. The air stream carries glowing chunks into a metal pan at the end of the tunnel.
Blunck is investigating one of the processes that sparked the Canyon Creek fire: ember generation. It’s a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has sat around a campfire and watched sparks fly into the night. However, the violent winds generated by a wildfire have been known to loft firebrands for miles, setting new spot fires and threatening homes and other structures.
“We know most embers come from crown fires. People have looked at ember transport and ignition, but we’re looking at what controls them,” says Blunck, the Welty Faculty Fellow who has studied combustion in gas turbine engines for the U.S. Air Force. “Knowledge of the physical forces that cause embers to be formed is lacking.”
Blunck knows that this highly controlled environment hardly compares to the blustery maelstrom of a burning forest. But understanding the controlling factors — wood size, species, moisture, temperature, wind speed — can help fire managers anticipate one of the most explosive features of spreading wildfire.
In addition to wind tunnel studies, Blunck and his team are doing controlled burns in open air. Comparing the results from such experiments allows the researchers to understand how embers are generated at different scales.
Fire on the Range
During her college years, Lisa Ellsworth fought fires as the only female on a Forest Service fire crew in Southern Oregon. She later studied wildfires caused by military activities in Hawaii (the Department of Defense is that state’s most frequent source of ignitions). But she feels right at home on the rangelands of the Great Basin. “The sagebrush steppe is vast and provides habitat for so many species,” she says. “The dryness and slow rate of recovery are incomprehensible to people who are used to forests.”
In these places where annual rainfall barely fills a coffee cup, native shrubs grow with the speed of fingernails. The research professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife wants to understand fire’s long-term impact — 20, 30 or 40 years after flames reset the long sweep of the sagebrush community. The occasional summer lightning storm can set these lands ablaze, but in contrast to upland forests, fire visits rarely, maybe every 50 or 100 years.
In lands that are mostly free of invasive plants like cheatgrass and medusahead, such fires don’t go far. “Native plants can tolerate periodic fire,” she says. “It’s the competition from the invasives that becomes a problem. Fire promotes early successional and invasive species, which are more flammable. In sagebrush steppe in good condition, I think it’s important to allow some fire, some heterogeneity — we call it punching holes. It helps to prevent those huge-scale fires that are fueled by continuous grass cover.”
Big fires like the Miller Homestead and Long Draw fires in 2012 can occur when non-native plants fill the spaces naturally left by bunch grasses and sagebrush. Cheatgrass, for example, grows fast in the spring and dries out by early summer. “So when fire does strike, we now have a continuous fuel source. Where fire was limited historically, now we have larger fires,” Ellsworth says.
On the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and other public lands, Ellsworth and her students and colleagues are comparing the composition of plant communities with varying fire histories. Fire plays a useful role in restoration, they have reported, but it needs to be managed in coordination with other efforts to restore diversity in sagebrush ecosystems.
Refuge from the Flames
When Meg Krawchuk was growing up in Toronto, visits to her grandmother meant traveling through a burned forest. It was just part of the landscape to a young girl, but she also remembers that her grandmother went there to pick blueberries.
The idea that wildfire destroys and creates, both shapes the landscape and is shaped by it, has now become a scientific calling. For the assistant professor in the College of Forestry, living with fire means understanding its role in ecology, management and communities. The term she and others use for this emerging field is “pyrogeography.”
“It’s the study of fire on Earth and brings in people as well as the natural world,” she says. “It has spatial layers, patterning and variability — local or regional. That’s what geography is all about, exploring those interactions.”
Every fire develops a unique personality as it responds to the vagaries of weather, topography and vegetation. So, using data from satellites, maps and other sources, Krawchuk analyzes the fingerprints that fires leave behind, including the mosaic of green islands that dot the sea of blackened soil and trees.
Patches of unburned forest — or places where the tree canopy escaped the flames — can provide a variety of functions for the forest that grows from the ashes. They may harbor insects, birds and other wildlife species. However, Krawchuk cautions against applying the term “refugia” only to intact forest. Burned lands provide habitat for species that need dead trees and openings to thrive. “There are species that require high-severity fire,” she says. “For beetles, for woodpeckers, for bluebirds, that’s their refuge.”
An understanding of pyrogeography can help forest managers, she adds. “Terrain doesn’t explain all the variability (in fire), but there is some predictive power associated with terrain. That can help give a spatial prescription or at least provide guidelines for harvest. With prescribed fire, there may be patches where it is more difficult to burn because they are driving to the beat of a different drum.”
Interrupting Fire Flow
John Bailey describes himself as a tinkerer. When he and other silviculturists look at a forest, they want to know what the objectives are — produce timber, preserve old trees, foster biodiversity, offer recreational opportunities. Then they determine how to meet them.
For Bailey, the Maybelle Clark MacDonald professor in the College of Forestry, fire plays as vital a role as soil, water and sun in achieving those outcomes. Continually putting fires out and not treating the landscape to remove the annual fuel build-up sets the stage for more tragedies like Canyon Creek.
“Silviculturists focus on trees and stands and how we put them together to interrupt landscape-level fire,” he says. “If we can thin or do a prescribed burn on one-third to two-thirds of the landscape to interrupt the flow of fire, that’s the sweet spot. Treating two-thirds will have a major impact on landscape fire.”
However, current land-use policies don’t provide forest managers with that kind of flexibility, even if they had the resources to conduct such operations. As an example, Bailey points to the Deschutes National Forest. “Even if you turned me loose with a golden checkbook, all I could treat out there now is about 16 percent of the landscape.” The rest of the forest falls under designations that typically do not allow for mechanical treatments or prescribed fire: campgrounds, riparian zones, special botanical areas, northern spotted owl protected areas, wilderness and so forth.
Moreover, he says, lightning-caused fires in wilderness areas are still routinely put out, even when homes and other property are not at risk. “In 2015, we extinguished about a hundred ignitions within the B&B Complex perimeter. After 12 years, it is primed to burn again. It would be perfect to burn again. We should be burning thousands of acres a year out there.”
While the high-intensity fires of the past make the public understandably wary, Bailey looks forward to the day when attitudes toward fire are more accepting.
“It starts with the kids,” he says. “We don’t want them playing with matches, but we want kids out there burning with Smokey. Get the fire engines out, burn an acre, look for the wildflowers the next year. In the future a child coming out of a house and smelling smoke will look up and, instead of saying ‘Oh, no!’ say, ‘oh good, they’re burning today.’”